Marginalia scholarship leads to discovery of Milton's relationship to Shakespeare

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

By Wendy Philpott

It’s fascinating how serendipity works. A professor edits a book, two of its contributors don’t know each other but have complementary expertise, and soon enough, a puzzle is solved about two giants of the English literary canon.

“It’s like if you discovered that Milton was a woman – it would be unavoidable to address that in future studies of him,” says Katherine Acheson, professor of English and an Associate Dean of Arts who edited the 2018 book Early Modern English Marginalia.

So, what was the discovery that rocked the literary world and garnered coverage by The Guardian, The Washington Post and the New York Times? It was that the handwritten annotations scattered throughout the pages of a surviving copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio (the first collection of his plays published in 1623) belong to John Milton, the poet and intellectual best known for his epic work, Paradise Lost.

deatil of Milton's notes in the FolioDetail of Milton's annotations on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Claire Bourne, reproduced with permission of the Rare Book Department, Free Library of Philadelphia.

“Because Milton and Shakespeare are the two most significant writers of all time in the English canon, to have this substantiation of how Milton worked with a Shakespeare text at such a fine-grained level is big,” says Acheson. “To see the mind and ideas if the poet interacting in such detail is really important to the history of English literature.”

In fact, they never met because Shakespeare died in 1616 when Milton was just a child. Nonetheless, says Acheson, their relationship has been a topic of much study and speculation amongst scholars over the years. “We know that Shakespeare was important to Milton – but we’re not sure exactly how. This evidence shows us that Milton cared deeply about Shakespeare’s words and how the performance text appeared in print.”

The two contributing scholars to Acheson’s collection, Jason Scott-Warren and Claire Bourne, inadvertently put their heads together to discover the owner of the copious marginalia that corrects, revises and comments on Shakespeare’s plays.

In one instance, Milton indicates that he thought the play Romeo and Juliet would be better titled Juliet and Romeo.

“Claire’s essay is about how a reader (Milton, as it turns out) comments on the Folio alongside other books in order to arrive at what he considered to be the best version of the plays.” The essay includes numerous photos of annotated pages in this now-particularly valued copy of the Folio housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Meanwhile in England, Scott-Warren, who is an expert in marginalia, paleography and literature of the period, read Bourne’s essay and was struck by the handwriting in the photos. He immediately re-examined examples of Milton’s handwriting held in archives at Cambridge University, and, early this fall, he blogged to the literary world that he was almost certain that the Folio’s marginalia belongs to Milton. For scholars of early modern English literature, it’s a bold and very exciting claim.

Katherine Acheson“The discovery also sheds new light on Milton’s poetry,” says Acheson. “For example, he first wanted to make Paradise Lost a play. When I teach that poem, I talk about different ways to understand it, including as a drama with the classic elements of how a drama unfolds. And so we now see just how closely Milton studied the dramatic conventions of Shakespeare.”

One of the aspects of this story that strikes Acheson is that the expertise needed to make this kind of discovery is shrinking in the world. Paleography identifies handwriting in its specific historical context. “PhDs in the humanities are getting less and less of this kind of training today as scholarship moves away from a focus on the Renaissance and as students are pressured to complete their studies in shorter periods of time.”

Of her own research on marginalia, Acheson says: “I’m very interested in how people used books when they were first introduced, when they became the main form of communication, and later when books were the dominant form of entertainment in the 18th and 19th centuries.”

book cover

“Scholars of marginalia look at how printed books are used as objects, as material things in our lives. Marginalia reveals interaction with the content and tells us something about how the book affects its readers.”

Noting that the rise of e-books also changes things, Acheson says that we might think online access means we can study anything in the world from wherever we sit, “but we can’t necessarily see all the properties of some objects in two dimensions. Working with material books, especially older books, becomes a kind of habit that allows different, deeper information to emerge. You have to be there with the real thing.”

That kind of hands-on research with tactile books made the discovery of the Milton-Shakespeare relationship possible, Acheson points out. “It will become one of the touchstones of our understanding of the whole course of literature. Of how Milton and Shakespeare became what we know them to be now.”

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